Returning lost objects is a topic covered in some detail in the Torah (see Shemot 23:4-5, Devarim 22:1-4), but the Torah does not discuss a situation when the owner of the lost object cannot be located easily. What rights and responsibilities does the finder have with regard to the object? When might he be able to claim it as his own? These are the issues discussed in the second perek of Massekhet Bava Metzia, Elu Metzi’ot, which begins on today’s daf.
The first Mishna in the perek opens with a list of lost objects that belong to the finder and a list of lost objects that must be announced in an attempt to locate the owner. The general principle is clear. Those objects that have a siman – some identifying mark that will allow the object to be claimed by its rightful owner – must be announced. Things that do not have identifying marks can be claimed by the individual who found them.
The Ritva points out that the Mishna does not distinguish between objects that must be announced and those that do not need to be announced, rather it clearly states that some lost objects belong to the finder. By doing so the Mishna teaches that even if the original owner brings witnesses who testify that the object belonged to him and that he lost it, nevertheless the finder keeps it if it does not have identifying marks. The reason for this ruling is explained by Rabbeinu Ḥananel – although ye’ush (literally “despair,” i.e. when the owner of an object gives up hope of recovering it) on its own may not allow an object to transfer from one owner to another in all cases, when an object is lost, all agree that ye’ush will allow that transfer to take place – and we always assume that there is ye’ush on an object with no siman.